Divorce & Widowhood

Divorce: Coping with Extreme Stress

Meanwhile, your husband is treating you not like a loved one, not like a friend or co-parent, but as an enemy. These can be the most difficult kinds of divorces. The contrast between how he is behaving now and how a loving spouse is expected to behave can be startling. Added to all this is your sense of injustice. Your husband is blaming you; your children are angry at you; he is painting you as a villain while you are doing the right thing by withholding criticism in front of them. This is happening, after you stood by him for years and tried to deal with his issues as he took the family down with him.

And now he is fighting you over things that, if he were being fair, should be fairly easy to distribute. Many states have clear guidelines for the amount of  child support a man is required to contribute. But many men go to great lengths to hide income and/or deprive their wives of money and property that is due them in a misguided quest for revenge.

This rancor has a negative effect not only on you, but also on your children, and if you are like most mothers this is one of the most stressful things of all about divorce. Worry about the children often keeps women in terrible marriages, long after it is clear that there is no hope for the couple. This is often a mistake. Children whose parents are trapped in awful marriages are sometimes relieved when they finally separate.

But children, even older ones, are shortsighted and self-interested, and they don’t like change. Very often their initial reaction is anger and they usually direct it at the parent with whom they feel most secure — the mother, usually, as in your case. That is because they don’t want to risk what already feels like a tenuous bond with their father by directing their anger toward him. They are not consciously doing this — it is just a coping mechanism, but it hurts nonetheless.

Take heart though from the fact that children are also very flexible and adjust quicker than adults, in general. Their initial anger usually fades and many come to accept the new arrangements in time. Judith Wallerstein, the author of many landmark studies about the effects of divorce on children, has found that there are certain factors associated with divorce (rather than divorce per se) that make it hard for kids that, if at all possible, should be minimized. For example, kids often have to cope with multiple changes that are disruptive to their lives when their parents split. They have to move, change schools, live on less money, deal with their mother’s grief and/or her going back to work, and so on. Wallerstein and her colleagues have found that the fewer changes the better, at least at first. Obviously not all of this is under your control, but you might try to bring your spouse around to this point of view.

In terms of self-care during this difficult time, I recommend the following: as much as possible, try not to be reactive to your husband’s unfairness with anger and bitterness. Try to imagine that he has gone temporarily insane, which in a way he has. Though again it is unjust that you always have to take the higher road, it is better if one of you, at least, is on it, and it may serve as an example for your husband.

Another thing is to recognize that it is normal to feel so much pain. Don’t judge yourself or worry that you will never recover. You will, even if the terms of the settlement are not what you want. One woman I know says she suffered flashes of intense anger and anxiety every time one of the unjustly small child-support checks from her ex arrived in the mail for many years after. But she also said that she came to feel that getting a divorce was one of the best things she ever did — she even celebrated the anniversary of the day he moved out for a few years. Her ultimate view was even if he paid nothing to support her children it would have been worth it to be free of the destructive influence he had on her and the family.

This woman was able to build a new life, eventually, and hopefully so will you. In the meantime, do lean on the friends and family that you have for support as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to call in favors. Now is the time for it. And now is the time, if you have ever considered it, to talk to a therapist. Short-term therapy can be very useful for sorting out your feelings, making decisions, and staying on an even keel in a situation like yours. Just remember, you made a well-considered decision after trying to make it work for many years without success. You owe it to yourself to let go and move on.


Wallerstein, J. (2008) Surviving The Breakup: How Children And Parents Cope With Divorce. 


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